Free Electrons

by John Walker
September 13th, 1987

On the morning of July 18th, Liberty, New Hampshire became the first town to vanish. Many residents of New Providence, over a wooded ridge from Liberty, were awakened at about 3:30 A.M. by a clap of thunder. Those who looked outside saw clear sky and a glow in the direction of Liberty. Volunteer firemen called friends in Liberty to ask what had happened, but none of the calls were answered. Most people went back to sleep.

By midday, all the world knew what had happened, but nobody knew how or why. The town of Liberty was gone. Gone to a meter below the ground. Gone right to the town limits, where some branches had fallen on undisturbed grass after their trees had vanished.

The president appointed an investigating panel chaired by the secretary of defense and made up of the secretary of the interior, the chairman of the National Academy of Sciences, and the president of M.I.T. On the 20th, the group held a press conference in Manchester and announced that no probable cause had yet been found. The defense secretary said that hostile action had been ruled out “for the time being”, since no aircraft were in the area at the time, nor were any satellites tracked by NORAD overhead. “In any case”, the secretary concluded, “we possess no technology which could do this, and we don't believe our adversaries do either”.

Over the next week ten more towns vanished: two in Massachusetts, another in New Hampshire, three in California (including one suburb of San Francisco), one in New Mexico, two in England, and one in the Netherlands. Data began to accumulate about the phenomenon. One of the California towns vanished during a Landsat pass; the multispectral camera recorded only the glow of ionized air molecules recombining. The nuclear test detectors on the remaining Vela satellite and the monitors on the Navstar constellation observed four light flashes coincident with disappearances. Nothing like the double flash of a nuclear detonation was seen, just slow airglow decay. No prompt radiation was detected at the time of the disappearances, nor was residual radiation found at the sites. Electromagnetic transients similar to a very large lightning strike were detected, and underground solar neutrino experiments reported six neutrino events near the time of the flashes, but gave only a 60% chance that this was correlated. Aviation Week reported that some at Los Alamos believed the flash spectrum similar to a free electron laser, but they had no idea how this could occur spontaneously.

As in time of war or natural disaster, the population surprised the politicians with its equanimity. Certainly there was uneasiness, and frustration grew as days passed without any explanation or plans to deal with the crisis, but no real signs of panic emerged. If scientists had no theories (as one physicist put it, “nothing even deserving of the term wild guess”), explanations nonetheless abounded. Television evangelists seized on the crisis as demonstrating God's wrath on sinful man (though none understood why Las Vegas was still around). The National Star interviewed 75 prophets and psychics who had predicted the disappearances, but was silent on which cities the “UFO Aliens” would kidnap next. Sinister rumors of Soviet secret weapons circulated, supported by the fact that no Eastern Bloc city had vanished.

By September 1st, over one hundred villages, towns, and cities in the United States, Western Europe, Latin America, Japan, and Australia had evaporated into the dead of night and the world was beginning to go truly crazy. Not one Soviet or Eastern European town had been affected; NATO moved to alert status “as a precautionary measure”. Still, no pattern emerged. Mostly small and medium sized towns and suburbs were vanishing. In the U.S. most were on the East and West coasts. Most of the mid-continent disappearances were university towns. No large cities nor unincorporated areas had yet gone, and people began to flow to the cities. Squatter camps appeared in state and national parks.

For perhaps the very first time, a librarian came to the rescue of civilization. Todd Murphy was a researcher for the Library of Congress project to build a computer database on the vanishing towns in the hope of finding some common thread or pattern. But the brain is still the best computer when it comes to finding patterns. The answer came not from the database, but to Murphy's mind as he was entering data in the middle of the night.

That Murphy is forceful and persuasive as well as wise was evident when, after hurriedly checking his hypothesis against the list of cities and finding complete confirmation, he convinced the White House switchboard to awaken the vice president and the national security adviser and ended up at 4 A.M. declaiming to a small, bleary-eyed group in the Situation Room, “Congress has to act on federal overriding legislation today, and you must get the President back in town to sign it before we lose any more people. Get State to work contacting the Europeans right now—it's going to be night soon over there. And call the prime minister of New Zealand! Every town that vanished had declared itself a nuclear-free zone. And the nuclei are moving out.”

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